There must be quite a few writers in Germany who find it at least a little unfair that Joachim Meyerhoff’s books have climbed the bestseller lists despite the fact that ‘author’ is not even the main artistic profession on his résumé. It can’t be denied, however, that the successful stage actor and theatre director has also been gifted with considerable talent for prose.
His own life provided plenty of dramatic material from the very beginning. Meyerhoff’s father was the director of psychiatric hospital and the family lived on the grounds of the institution. Meyerhoff’s autobiographical novels emerged from Alle Toten fliegen hoch, a play he wrote and directed for Vienna’s Burgtheater. Here in book form he presents these recollections from his childhood, youth and family history in a language that is delightfully simple, smooth and unencumbered by stylistic experiments. The unusual childhood home provides the setting for his second book Wann wird es endlich wieder so, wie es nie war (2013), while the first installment in the series, Amerika (2011), draws on the author’s teenage years and a high school exchange in the United States. During Meyerhoff’s absence from Germany, his older brother died in a car accident. This early experience of loss forms the foundation of his third literary take on his life. Ach diese Lücke, diese entsetzliche Lücke finds our hero on the brink of adulthood and can easily stand on its own as a bittersweet tale of self-discovery.
With his parents’ marriage threatening to collapse under the weight of grief and unable to face his brother’s grave, the narrator is looking for an escape from his North German home town. Much to his bewilderment, he is accepted into the prestigious Otto Falckenberg drama school in Munich, despite showing up to the audition woefully underprepared. Given the narrator’s fragile state, this might have set the course for a student life of parties and self-destruction but things take a slightly more unusual turn when the city’s high rents force him to move in with his grandparents. A former actress and a semi-retired professor of philosophy they inhabit an old mansion in one of the city’s grandest neighbourhoods. Here they seem to exist in their own little universe, utterly unconcerned by any changes happening around them, “ticking along reliably, like two expensive clocks”, as Meyerhoff puts it.
In the grandparent’s domain every item has its place and each day is structured around the same habits and the same sequence of stiff drinks, from champagne with breakfast to Cointreau before bed. This unchanging house, every detail of which is familiar to the narrator from many childhood visits, offers a respite from the uncertainties of drama school as he struggles to find his bearings among a group of extroverted first-years who seem to be brimming with all the talent and confidence he lacks. Every night he returns home to his grandparents’ house, from the strange shores of the theatre world to be lulled by whiskey, stories from their past and philosophical discussions until it is time for his tipsy grandparents to stretch out on the floor of their living room, hand in hand, and blast out their worn-out opera records.
Meyerhoff gives hilarious insights into the world of acting and the absurdities of a curriculum that requires drama students to learn how to “smile with your nipples”. But above all the book is a loving portrait of a remarkable couple seen through the admiring eyes of the grandson who manages to tease out what is likeable, even magical, about their oddities and their refusal to deviate in any way from the lifestyle they have chosen.
The coming-of-age theme at the core of the novel and the narrator’s struggle to find a sense of belonging will strike a chord with many readers who can remember their first months and years out in the world of grown-ups. But while many a book has been written about sad young literary men cast adrift in the big city, to this reviewer the sad young man downing whiskeys with his grandparents until all three of them have to rely on the stair-lift to safely reach their bedrooms seems an entertaining and unusual new take on the subject.
Reviewed by Barbara Wünnenberg
Ach, diese Lücke, diese entsetzliche Lücke
Written (in German) by Joachim Meyerhoff
Published by Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne
Barbara Wünnenberg has studied History, German Literature and European Literature in Berlin, Mexico City and London. She is currently writing a thesis on British writers in the Weimar Republic as part of the joint PhD programme between Humboldt University Berlin and King’s College London.
Joachim Meyerhoff is highly recommended for translation into English by all of us at ELNet but also by New Books in German.